My husband and I were living in India, doing research on a seminary campus. Several Indian families there had adopted from a nearby orphanage. The orphanage was reputable, we were told. The people in charge had integrity. We filled out forms and began the wait for a baby.
When twin brothers arrived, the social workers immediately thought of us. As U.S. citizens, my husband and I could legally adopt twin boys and therefore guarantee the brothers wouldn’t be separated (with a glut of girls waiting for homes, Indian law at the time allowed Indians to adopt only one boy per family). This orphanage also looked first to Indian families when placing infants (or at least one Indian-born parent). I met that requirement in our case.
We longed to nurture those beautiful babies: 4 months old, 5 pounds each, battling pneumonia for the second and third time. But we had to wait for legal permission. An Indian social worker vetted our financial, physical, emotional and psychological fitness. While we waited for the boys’ U.S. visas and completed the trans-country adoption paperwork, she gave her approval for guardianship, and we brought the boys home. Once the U.S. consulate granted permission to bring the boys back to California, we went through fingerprint and background checks, another home study and more paperwork until a judge finally declared them our children and issued new birth certificates.
When North American acquaintances learned our boys were adopted, many saw a fairy tale of two orphans rescued from a poor country raised by a sacrificial couple. We were the heroes in that version of the story. Not once did anyone question the boys’ traumatic loss (Nancy Newton Verrier’s landmark book, The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child, which illuminated the psychological and emotional pain endured by children who are relinquished by biological mothers, was released two months after we brought the boys home). And no one advocated for the unseen third party in this adoption triad: the boys’ first mother. But we admittedly didn’t care much what adulators thought ― we were working too hard just to keep the boys alive. And for better or worse, we didn’t hear from any detractors.
In today’s version of the international adoption story, adoptive parents like my husband and me are villains.
Now, a quarter century later, the discussion surrounding international adoption has evolved. Words and phrases like trafficking, corruption, baby factories, post-traumatic stress disorder, rehoming and family preservation are common, and scandals have exploded around the globe. In China, for example, infants from Hunan were sold to orphanages, and those orphanages lied to adoptive parents. People profit in the transaction of removing children from one family and placing them in another. Some of that profit is legal, but some is not, like the fees “brokers” receive from shady agencies to provide babies, no questions asked. In Nigeria, for example, pregnant women were arrested for selling a baby for $2,000, and traffickers made up to $6,400 per baby.
In today’s version of the international adoption story, adoptive parents like my husband and me are villains. We are portrayed as careless, privileged consumers with a “savior” mentality, fueling a baby-selling business in which vulnerable children and women are commodities. Adoption service providers are also antagonists, widely mistrusted as profiteers. And the practice is shutting down as a result: From 2004 to 2018, international adoptions by Americans declined by 81 percent. If trends continue, it could completely end by 2022. Earlier this year, Ethiopia banned foreign adoptions entirely.
Moving from protagonist to antagonist feels like a reversal of fortune. It’s painful. But ultimately, we are the ones with privilege when it comes to the triad of first mother, child and adoptive parent. This means we must be on the forefront of advocating fiercely for the marginalized and fighting against the injustice that will always be at the root of adoption. We ― adoptive parents and adoption service providers ― must be known for championing the empowerment of oppressed and exploited women to prevent atrocities.
We must listen to adult adoptees traumatized by this irreversible loss. In researching my forthcoming novel, I listened to adoptees who mourn for their first mothers, relatives, cultures and identities. Many lament or rage over the fact they had no volition or agency when they were at their most helpless. We must hear their stories. We must grieve with and for them. They have the least power of all.
We must also become activists against the trafficking of children, holding adoption service providers to a high level of transparency and accountability. The Hague Adoption Convention, which was ratified by nearly 100 countries in 1993 and which entered into force for the U.S. in 2008, requires that participant governments create a “central authority” to protect adoptees from abduction or trafficking. Today, a U.S. organization called the Intercountry Adoption Accreditation and Maintenance Entity “evaluates agencies and individuals using uniform standards that work to ensure professional and ethical practices.” Additionally, adoption service providers are regulated by our State Department’s Office of Children’s Issues, and, to date, no U.S.-based accredited service provider has been proved to be involved in the abduction, sale or trafficking of children. However, the U.S. is the only United Nations country that has yet to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which includes a section on safeguarding the adopted child. One hundred and eighty-two countries have signed it; we have not.
When adopting from Hague Convention countries, we can know that the U.S. embassy or consulate has investigated whether the child was trafficked or relinquished without protecting the rights of a first mother; the exchange of money is supposed to be transparent from start to finish, from country of origin to the U.S. There’s sometimes the temptation on the part of the adoptive parent to work with cheaper, unregulated agencies, as adoption service providers charge higher fees to cover the cost of OCI accreditation. But we have to ask ourselves: Are financial savings, a faster timeline and fewer forms worth the possibility of widespread harm done to children and women?
The truth is that despite convention regulations, weak rule of law still permits exploitation. Some may say the only just solution, then, is a full international adoption ban. But how would that affect the other two members of the adoption triad? It wouldn’t necessarily curtail trafficking ― where corruption is endemic, unprotected children will sadly always be sold into slavery or prostitution. And in a world rife with war, poverty, addiction, racism, ableism and violence against women, children will continue to be orphaned or abandoned. It’s hard to argue that this is better for them than growing up in a safe and loving adoptive family, first locally, if possible, to retain kinship and ethnic connections, and then internationally if remaining in-country isn’t an option.
A ban on international adoptions would also affect the pregnant woman by taking away one of her options. A first mother might want her child to cross international borders to find a loving family and may even prefer that to relinquishing her child to local kin. She might ask for privacy and even anonymity. She should be able to choose adoption if she is well-informed and in charge of the process, and her parental and privacy rights should be safeguarded (as they are beginning to be domestically).
And so I say, with caution and caveats, orphaned or relinquished babies should be allowed to join families across borders. But the ends never justify the means, especially when power imbalances and greed drive the process. Adoptive parents and adoption service providers can and should be known for our empowerment of marginalized women, for listening to adoptees, and for our dedicated efforts in battling the trafficking of children and advocating for the rights of the child.
Mitali Perkins is the author of 12 novels for young readers. Forward Me Back To You (coming out April 2 from Macmillan) explores international adoption and trafficking. Mitali was born in Kolkata, immigrated to the United States with her family as a child and studied at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley.
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